There is something unspeakably classy and sophisticated about Japanese food - so intriguing, so beautiful, so modern and innovative and yet steeped in tradition and art.
Most familiar to Londoners will be sushi, the bite size pieces of cold rice, seaweed and seafood or vegetables, seen zipping around conveyor belts or in dinky plastic boxes in supermarkets and sandwich shops. However, there is more: stir-fried noodles, big bowls of noodles in soup, super-fresh stir-fries cooked on a teppan hot griddle in front of your eyes and hundreds of combinations available to a keen and curious diner in the form of bento boxes.
When the fish has to be so fresh, it mustn't be cooked and chefs have to be not just good at what they do but masters, London does its best to give good sushi but what can a Londoner do to appreciate what is out there? What to order?
Advice and tips after the jump.
Japanese food is rice and fish based so for fish fans, great: go crazy! For vegetarians, there is a lot on offer such as vegetable tempura and non-meat or fish sushi, lots of tasty tofu and meat-free noodle and stir-fry dishes. For the carnivores, try the katsu chicken or pork and sticky, moreish yakitori skewers but don't expect a lot of red meat or cuts of meat bigger than an escalope: food is bite-size or shredded for stir-frying.
Sushi is very adaptable for groups with folks sharing big platters of sushi selections and can be good for a solitary lunch at your desk or an evening dinner by yourself. There are lots of canteen-style restaurants out there that can seat big groups for noodles and bento or slot in an individual diner eating alone so again, these items are good for whatever you're planning.
But for the big show-offs, for impressing parents-in-law, a new boyfriend / girlfriend or simply treating yourself and friends and family to a Grand Japanese Night Out, head to a teppan place where diners are seated around a hot, flat griddle and a chef prepares and cooks your food before your very eyes, chopping and carving with ninja-approved skill and flipping noodles and searing meat and fish with more showmanship than Western chefs would know what to do with.
Most menus will help out English readers, but here's some additional guidance:
nigiri - bitesize block of rice with a topping of fish, tofu, prawns, scallops etc
gunkans - boatshaped bitesize block of rice wrapped in seaweed with a topping
sashimi - slices of just fish, raw
gyoza - pan-fried dumplings (vegetarian and non-vegetarian fillings usually available)
yakitori - chicken grilled on skewers
futomaki - big roll of rice and seaweed with a generous filling
maki - small roll of rice and seaweed with a smaller filling
miso - thin soybean broth, salty and sometimes fishy
gari - pickled ginger for refreshing and cleansing the palate
tamago - sweetened omelette used as a filling or topping for sushi
wasabi - green sauce similar to very hot horseradish; use sparingly unless you like htat sort of thing
Main courses / Other
tempura - vegetables or seafood deep-fried in tempura batter, very light and crisp
teriyaki - sweet soya sauce glazed grilled cuts of pork, chicken or fish
katsu - means deep-fried in breadcrumbs
tonkatsu - deep-fried pork cutlets in breadcrumbs
katsudon - deep-fried pork cutlets in breadcrumbs with rice
teppan - stir-fried on a hot, flat griddle
bento - a box divided into compartments offering diners a range of dishes, usually some sushi, a rice or noodle dish, some yakitori and salad; a good way to sample lots of things
soba - narrow rice noodles, stir-fried or in soup with varying toppings
udon - thick rice noodles, stir-fried or in soup with varying toppings
somen - very narrow rice noodles
ramen - noodles in soup with varying toppings
yakisoba - stirfried thin noodles
sake - Japanese rice wine, served hot; can be very strong and is NOT a shot so even though it is served in small glasses, do NOT be tempted to down sake in one
Conveyor belt sushi is a fun and quick way to enjoy sushi, especially if you're not wanting noodle or teppan dishes. Most famous of the conveyor belt sushi restaurants is the chain Yo! Sushi, with Itsu a close second; both chains have restaurants across London. Sushi served this way may not be very fresh or authentic - Londonist has seen some unusual and questionable sushi "innovations" zipping by on various visits to both chains, but nothing can beat the convenience or novelty value of having your food served to you "luggage carousel" style.
If going straight to the seaweed and raw fish of sushi is too daunting for newcomers, the canteen style Wagamama chain around London is a good place to start - serving mainly noodle and rice dishes in generous portions, food and service are reliably fresh and friendly. The same can be said of Satsuma, though if you get a seat here, try the bento which is beautifully presented and good value for money available in all sorts of combinations with something for everyone.
For a non-conveyor belt sushi meal, try Feng Sushi - the fish is so fresh it could almost still be pulsing, in the Borough Market branch at least. No wacky ideas or novelty presentation here: just good old sushi and lots of it.
For those who don't want to go to a chain restaurant, Londonist recommends the teeny-tiny Ichi Riki in Victoria, a restaurant so small it could have been pickpocketed from a Tokyo sidestreet and dropped into this stairway on Strutton Ground. Small though it is, like its sushi it is perfectly formed and small groups of small people dining here can almost believe they are really in the land of the rising sun.
Nambu-Tei is another non-chain restaurant and is usually crowded with Japanese businessmen, which is recommendation enough. However, this restaurant can be daunting for those not very familiar with Japanese food so work up to this place if you're starting out.
And finally, for the full teppan experience, go to Benihana and enjoy the show. The food is good too, we hear.